Saturday, July 28, 2007

1408 Criticisms

"1408", is a new film starring John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson - directed by Swede Mikael Håfström & based on a short story by Stephen "Unputdownable" King. The premise is a good and scary one: Mike Enslin (Cusack) has made a living writing about haunted locations around the country. He goes from place to place, recording his thoughts on what he experiences in these supposedly haunted locales and then writes books about them (seemingly in a typical "Top Ten" type format.) You can cut Cusack's cynicism with a machete at this point - he's never seen anything and just hypes up each location in his books to make a buck.

When he receives a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in NYC telling him not to stay in room 1408, he, like any good horror film character, rises to the bait. The hotel manager (Jackson) refuses to let him stay in the room at first - citing the fact that no one ever lasts in there for more than an hour and that there have been 56 deaths in 1408 since the hotel opened. Enslin persists, like a dutiful cynic, and is eventually granted access. Once he's in the room, well, that's where things begin to unravel.

OK, like I said, Enslin has been in countless hotel rooms looking for spooky shit, right? Five minutes into his stay in 1408, he turns his back and an invisible someone makes the bed and places 2 chocolates on the pillow. He, still the cynic here, records his sarcasm into his tape recorder with a grin - "A ghost that offers turn down service". So, when he's been in the room for 5 minutes more and the alarm clock spookily goes off for the second time, why does he jump and spill his expensive drink like someone set off 1,408 firecrackers at the foot of the bed? C'mon - I didn't even jump that much & I'm clearly just an amateur cynic. Anyway, soon after that, the window slams shut on his hand, cutting him rather badly. He then proceeds to smear blood all over the room like a mental patient - screaming and slamming his cut hand all over the place. What the fuck? This is an awfully big reaction from someone who should, by definition of his character, remain perfectly calm in light of strange events happening around him. He's only been in this room for like 12 minutes - it just seems so over-the-top.

I don't watch bloodbath horror films anymore - I liked them like most 10-year olds, but now they all seem derivative and played out. Which is what intrigued me about the premise of 1408 - it definitely centers on the psychology of fear, rather than chopping-you-up-into-pieces fear. What happens to one man locked into "a fucking evil room" (Jackson) for a night? And there are certainly several creepy moments in it, but not nearly as many as I had hoped. Enslin is given a folder containing crime scene photos of every death from 1408 - we see several potentially scary ones, including a man who slashed his own throat before trying to sew it back together again. So if 56 people have died in this room, why are we subjected to the same pair of benign looking ghosts who rather passively fall out the window as their preferred method of demise? This room should scare the shit out of me! I had no reason to expect bad things to happen to Enslin if I am not lead in that direction. The Washington Post, while not exactly universally acclaimed for their film reviews, said "our mounting dread becomes almost intolerable." Was I watching the same movie? Dread? I just figured that when the hour in the room was up, everything's cool, right? What's the big deal? Of course, there is a twist, but, that said, director Håfström botches the whole deal and ends with too many questions. And not the kind of holy shit, "Keyser Sose"-type questions either.

Maybe I wanted to like this more than was reasonable, but it seems to be one of those films that sucks more and more as you think it over after the fact. Cusack is great in the first 1/3, maybe, but his acting ability just seems wasted after awhile, as if he's been told over & over again to overemphasize his emotions more. More cowbell! And the ending...what happens there? Is he dead? Is he alive? Are they both in the room? Is he dreaming? Is he awake? It's just not clear - which is the problem. It's not that I am questioning what I have seen, its just that I'm questioning whether I can fit my whole body through the hole in the script. It felt like a great film made by a student who had no idea how to wrap the thing up at the end and still give you a jolt of fear. I had none of that, just an urge to scratch my head.

It's not a bad film, it just left me pining for something different. Something scary. Check out Salon.com and The Onion (AV Club) for like minded critics. Or, for the other, wrong side, check out the normally spot-on Peter Travers' review in Rolling Stone: "Hafstrom ratchets up the tension big time as Cusack pulls out all the stops in a performance way beyond frightfest duty." Puh-lease.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Some Books of Note

Here's some stuff I've been reading - started out in chronological order, but soon digressed.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (unfinished)
Good start, very funny – reminded me a bit of Absurdistan or Confederacy of Dunces, with a Latin twist - but Diaz alternates narratives away from protag, Oscar to his not as interesting relatives, who lost me a bit. I have wandered away. I think that if this gets some positive press when it arrives in September, I may give it another go. Oooh, maybe Kakutani will review it!

The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Of all the mystery novelists I read & recommend, Burke is undoubtedly my favorite. And I know I say this every time he has a new book, but this, his “Katrina novel”, really is one of the best books he’s ever written. In the aftermath of the levees breaking, detective Dave Robicheaux is called back to New Orleans to help keep the peace – an impossibility amidst the chaos, death, & destruction in post-Katrina NOLA. Dave’s struggles include tracking down a serial rapist, a missing priest, Uptown vigilantes and coping with the downfall of the city he loves. A great detective novel, but one filled with a heartbreaking, remarkably evocative realism that brought it all back for me, in a way that only Burke can.

Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

Ruff is seriously one of the cleverest, most certifiably insane authors out there. Monkeys reads a bit like an ultra-violent, much crazier version of a Jasper Fforde novel. Is Jane Charlotte crazy? Or is she really part of an underground secret organization that hunts down Evil people & eliminates them with a Natural Causes gun? Or is she actually evil herself & is just lying to us? A wickedly fast, really, really crazy novel that was just lots of fun to read.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

Saturday's Child by Ray Banks
Reminded me a lot of Bruen’s Jack Taylor – sort of deplorable, screw-ups that drink & fight too much. Cal’s fresh out of prison and looking to make his way as a PI – the most honorable thing he can think of pursuing, I guess. He’s not exactly Magnum PI, though – his opening “case” in this one is a brawl in a pub men’s room with a stab-happy junkie that stemmed from a mistaken identity. Doesn’t pay well. When he’s approached for a real case by the crime family that essentially put him in prison, Cal reluctantly accepts, knowing full well that it will most likely result in his return to jail. But of course he takes it anyway, and all hell breaks loose. Hooray!

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

The Bestiary by Nicholas Christopher
I wanted so bad to like this book, but man, it just fizzled for me. Great premise – great first half, even: Xeno Atlas grows up consumed by an obsession over a long lost book, a bestiary, containing a listing of all the animals left behind by Noah’s biblical Ark. Animals like Centaurs, Griffins, and the Manticore, who once actually roamed the earth until the flood. Sounds preposterous, but Xeno actually picks up the trail of this item and spends a lifetime tracing it across the Old World. But alas, the story fades into a Da Vinci Code-type conclusion that seemed rushed and lame. Go read Christopher’s A Trip to the Stars instead – an absolute masterwork.

The Broken Shore by Peter Temple
Temple has written eight books and won Australia’s top crime fiction prize a remarkable five times – enough for me, at least. While this is billed rather simply as “crime fiction” – & at the heart of this, there are several violent crimes – Temple uses descriptive prose uncommon to the genre to really open up the countryside world of rural northern Australia & its inhabitants. All Joe Cashin wants to do is forget his city detective job, rebuild his family homestead, & hang out with his dogs – impossible pursuits in a crime novel, of course – but he ends up enmeshed in small town politics & shocking crimes, by criminals & cops alike, that threaten to permanently wreck his vacation.

The Fix by Anthony Lane
This galley has been sitting in my library since maybe 2004. So long that it’s now gone out of print. Which is too bad, because it was a pretty good crime novel.

1 Dead In Attic by Chris Rose
Chris Rose is my favorite New Orleans newspaper columnist who writes for the Times Picayune down there, and this is a collection of his columns from Katrina and the days that followed. Heartbreaking. Just after the storm, he read a piece of his on NPR, where he describes touring the devastated city by car with his young children. One of the kids spotted a “purple upside down car” and pointed it out to Rose, who thought it an appropriate allegory for the state of New Orleans. It reduced me to tears. You can buy copies of this from
Octavia Books in New Orleans, my former employers and good friends.


Four Seasons In Rome by Anthony Doerr

DeNiro’s Game by Rawi Hage
Beirut is a shitty place to live, it would appear. This excellent debut tracks the lives of friends Bassam and George, as they make their life decisions and choose their respective paths to survive Beirut. Reminded me a lot of Graceland by Chris Abani (which was Lagos, Nigeria, but just as terrifying).

Ammunition by Ken Bruen
Always good for a pick-me-up – Bruen shines as always in this latest Sgt. Brandt novel. I always feel like I’ve been going shot for shot with these guys when I read these books – which always end with Brandt punching me in the face. It’s like book crack for me – 24 hour benders.

Harry Potter 2
After all the hype, I figured I should find out what all the goddamn fuss is about.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bad Craziness

More Potter nonsense: Publishers Weekly let slip today that it was the buyer in an early EBay auction for Harry Potter 7. The seller was a Will Collier - who was the recipient of one of the early deliveries from the soon-to-be-defunct DeepDiscount.com - who sold the book 2 days in advance on EBay for $250. It's bad enough that Collier turned around and sold the book right away - although, can you really blame him? - but the fact that PW was the buyer is just pathetic. Standards in the book business? Pshaw! Even more pathetic in all of this is Scholastic, who actually thought that they could keep a lid on this Potter thing after generating an absurd frenzy leading up to tonight's release. Yes, HP7 is going to be make or break for bookstores like the one I work for, but man, this whole thing stinks now and I can't wait this bullshit lead-in to be over. Does anyone want to talk about adult fiction? Anyone? Jesus! An all of this has been at the hands of adults, of course - I have yet to hear from one single child who cares about anything other than getting the book at 12:01 Saturday night. All these kids want is to read the freakin' book - and they all seem to understand that it goes on sale at midnight, end of story. We should all be ashamed of ourselves.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Michiko Kakutani Kills Harry Potter

This Potter stuff just gets more and more ridiculous and out of hand. In today's New York Times, there ran a full length review by Michiko Kakutani of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Within the space of her review, she admitted that the book was "purchased at a New York City store yesterday, though the book is embargoed for release until 12:01 a.m. on Saturday". Anyone for an ethics lesson?

Those who know me know that I often vehemently disagree with Ms. Kakutani as far as her book reviews go - she's got an air of pretentious snobbery about her, even prior to this nonsense - but this goes way beyond having alternative views on literature. This is actually a deplorable act and a blatant disregard for rules that everyone - 9-year old children, even - have managed to abide by. I realize the absurdity of not leaking information regarding a kids book, but nonetheless, people get really upset when you talk about it. Trust me on this one. I also think its total bullshit that she purchased the book from a New York bookstore. Please. Like there's really a bookstore somewhere in New York with a big fucking stack of Harry Potter books in their window right now - unless it has an invisibility cloak thrown over it and only Michiko Kakutani is allowed under it. I just think it's sad that a respected journalist like Kakutani, along with her paper, would stoop to such a low as this. Get a life Kraputani.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Harry Potter and the Publisher's Greed

First off, I want everyone to know that this is not an anti-Harry Potter post. It's a wonderful, amazing thing that can get people of all stripes to read the same book - especially in absurdly high numbers like Harry Potter 7 seems to be doing. I have admittedly not read past the first book, but I certainly appreciate the appeal. Although, I did see a grown man reduced nearly to tears today when someone bullshitted him into thinking that they actually knew how the new book ended and was "spreading the word". Very sad. But, I rant, therefore I am.

Scholastic, the US publisher for the Potter books, has set the retail price for the new book at $34.99. This is a ridiculous price - your average adult hardcover novel runs somewhere around $24-28. $35 is total highway robbery, especially for a children's book. That said, most major retailers are heavily discounting the books - Amazon.com leads the way at $17.99 retail. DeepDiscount.com, some Chicago-based online store, was selling HP7 at $17.98, but they are now facing a massive lawsuit at the hands of Scholastic because they shipped the books out to customers late last week, breaking the strictest of the strict release dates. How the hell do you work in the book business and not know that the Harry Potter books have an unbreakable release date? Assholes.

Anyway, this deep discounting alone makes it almost impossible for independent stores to compete - we all just need to accept whatever we can sell and be happy that we have a loyal customer base that will ignore the big bastard stores & buy from us. Some independents are discounting between 10-20% - totally fine with me, as none of us can afford the 49% discount Amazon offers. My store is not discounting, but we are giving away specially crafted, limited edition Harry Potter t-shirts with the book. Very enticing. Ok, here's the rant: Scholastic sells the book to your average bookstore at a 48% discount rate. This puts the cost for your average independent retailer at $18.19 or so - exactly the price that Costco is asking. (I'm pretty sure that Amazon is getting a better rate - most likely 50%, but whatever.) The really crappy part is that Scholastic themselves are selling the book, on their own website, at a 30% off discounted rate. If you, the average web savvy consumer, buys the new Harry Potter book from the publisher's website, you will only pay $24.49.

I'm trying really, really hard to eliminate the F-Bomb from my everyday speech, but this is testing my linguistic limits. How can I, as a legitimate retailer, justify selling this book to people for the manufacturer's suggested retail price of 35 bucks when the manufacturer themselves are making up another, lower price for their own private sales??!! In this week's Publishers Weekly, Peter Glassman of Books of Wonder in NYC was quoted as saying, "It's like Sony setting a recommended price on TVs for retailers and then telling customers that they can get it cheaper from them directly." Exactly. And, on top of this, our Scholastic sales rep tried to talk our Childrens Book Buyer out of ordering so many books (500 initially), claiming that we would more than likely be hurt by the deep discounts offered at the chain stores. Are you fucking kidding me???? Chain stores? Or the actual fucking publisher themselves?! Bend over little mister independent! How, I ask you, how can the publisher justify this? If I ran the zoo...if it weren't for Potter, I think I might at least halve my next Scholastic order, if not close my account altogether. Screw them, I might as well buy any titles of theirs that I want from Costco. At least I know their prices going in - I'm not going to get hosed as soon as I turn my back.

What do I do, as a bookseller? Can I actually ask my customers to pay this inflated price? Is a t-shirt enough to make this alright? Wasn't this supposed to be fun? What has happened to us all? - pettiness and greed abound in our world. Do yourself and your children a favor: go to your local independent bookstore, buy the book from them, attend their Midnight Release Party (I guarantee that they're having one - and Costco's not) and have a great time. That's what this should be all about.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

David Mitchell

David Mitchell, who I have come to accept as my current favorite author, gave an interview to the Japan Times on his novel-in-progess - a historical piece set in Nagasaki (he won't give more info than that): Mitchell interview.

"I decided very early on that my new novel must be set in a nearby parallel universe — one where global history is the same as ours, but the local history of Nagasaki is one of my own invention. This gives me the license I need to create my own cast, plot and locations, and frees me from having to spend the next two or three years as a researcher of vanished minutiae."